Venue: Murrayfield, Edinburgh (Scotland)
Date: Saturday, June 26
The British & Irish Lions have been dormant for four years since their last tour, a vintage effort in New Zealand in a series that finished in a 1-1 draw with some scintillating rugby along the way. The Lions now set their sights on South Africa for their 2021 tour, playing warm-up games against the South African rugby franchises before a three-Test series against the world champion Springboks.
The tour, however, starts at home in Scotland as the Lions take on Japan. The Brave Blossoms were an incredible story in their home World Cup in 2019, but this is a squad without much game time at the international level since that tournament as the Covid pandemic has seriously hit their ability to host or travel to other continents.
One interesting thing to consider here is that the Japanese will offer a completely different challenge to the South Africans. Japan loves to play expansive, fast-paced rugby, while the ‘Boks will use their size and power to devastating effect with their forward pack. With that in mind, it seems a strange choice of games for a warm-up – perhaps Argentina would have been a better option – but just getting the Lions’ players used to playing together makes a match like this vitally important as part of a tour.
The Lions are missing some cogs – notably the four Exeter Chiefs’ players (including likely starting fullback Stuart Hogg) who will be playing in the Premiership final on the same day. Others are unavailable having only just joined the camp from their Premiership endeavors, but make no mistake that head coach Warren Gatland has put out a strong side with the intention of laying a marker as to how this tour will go before even leaving the British Isles.
Getting combinations right is a huge part of a Lions tour and there are a number of debutants in the red jerseys here. It is a shame we won’t see Hamish Watson – the best player in the Six Nations this year by many accounts – as he had to pull out thanks to a concussion suffered in training. With any luck, we will see what Watson can do later in the tour.
One area to watch will be the center – Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw start this one – while Dan Biggar gets the first chance to impress in the No. 10 shirt
The Japanese may not have played much together, but the continuity they showed in the 2019 World Cup should come to the fore as many familiar names from that tournament will be on show here. Perhaps the star og Japanese rugby at the moment is Highlanders back-rower Kazuki Himeno and he starts on the bench here to provide plenty of impact when he is introduced after a Super Rugby campaign that turned him into a cult hero. The likes of Michael Leitch, Kotaro Matsushima, and Amanaki Mafi are all ready to trouble the Lions’ defense as part of the Japanese starting XV.
The Lions will win outright so the spread becomes the play here. The line is 19.5 points and your bet rests on if you think the Lions will find their connections early or take some time to get into their rhythm. I like them to find ways to score early and often and through the Japanese will be industrious their lack of high-level competition will show. The Lions win this by 25 or so and the Lions -19.5 is the bet here.